Glottic stenosis refers to scarring in the larynx at the level of the vocal cords (glottis). It usually narrows the space available between the cords for inflow of air to the lungs while breathing. Or it can cause divots in the posterior vocal cords. Examples of possible causes:

Congenital Web

A baby can be born with vocal cords fused together due to a developmental defect.

Endotracheal (breathing) tube injury

Breathing tubes go through the mouth, down into the larynx, between the vocal cords and into the upper trachea. If a person requires ventilation due to critical illness and the breathing tube sits between the vocal cords for several weeks, then raw surfaces can be created. A scar between the raw surfaces on opposite cords can bind the vocal cords together with insufficient remaining space for easy breathing. Or there can be scarring (ankylosis) of the cricoarytenoid joints.

Radiation for Larynx Cancer

When larynx cancer is radiated for cure, occasionally the radiation burns are deep enough to create scarring between the cords, or to progressively fibrose (stiffen) the cricoarytenoid joints.

Other causes are gunshot wounds, or swallowed plumber’s lye injury (usually young children).

The Effect of Glottic Stenosis

Persons with glottic stenosis describe exercise intolerance and/ or noisy inspiratory breathing (causing involuntary inspiratory phonation or stridor) if the scarring is only the posterior vocal cords. Or if there is scarring of the anterior 2/3 of the cords, voice will also be affected.

Treatment Options

Treatment options include microsurgical release of scar tissue, with or without steroid injection and topical anti-scarring agents, and occasionally an open reconstruction with grafting.


Breathing Tube Injury, not Vocal Cord Paralysis

This middle-aged woman was injured severely in an auto accident as a teenager. Recovery involved a long stay in ICU, and ventilation via a breathing (endotracheal) tube for a few weeks prior to tracheotomy. Fifteen years earlier, a posterior commissuroplasty was done by me on the left side.  Severely short of breath before that procedure, she said the improvement was such that she was able to do most activities of daily living remarkably well for many years. While still much better than prior to the posterior commissuroplasty, she has felt a little more limited in the past few years and wants now another similar airway-widening procedure. Speaking voice can easily pass for normal, though she thinks it is occasionally a little rough.
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Aperture is very narrow (1 of 6)

Seen from a distance, during exhalation, the vocal cord aperture is perhaps 30% of normal.

Involuntary inspiratory phonation (2 of 6)

When asked to inspire rapidly, even in this distant view, the vocal cords can be seen to in-draw and vibrate (see blur), creating involuntary inspiratory phonation. Inspiratory phonation time is estimated at 2.5 seconds, rather than the normal 1 second or less.

Divot on left vocal cord (3 of 6)

The shallow “divot” of the left cord (right of photo) is all that remains of what would have been a much deeper divot created at the time of posterior commissuroplasty, 15 years earlier. The dashed line indicates the likely magnitude of laser excision.

Endotracheal tube injury (4 of 6)

The full extent of the original endotracheal tube injury is seen best in this view of the extreme posterior commissure. One can almost see the upper surface of the cricoid cartilage marked with “C” showing also a scar band between arytenoid and cricoid cartilages, especially on the right (at S).

Laser cookie bite (5 of 6)

The posterior commissure during phonation shows the divot on the left cord (right of photo). The dashed line shows the approximate magnitude of the laser “cookie bite” to be created at the time of surgery. But the lighter dotted line is a typical remaining divot after full healing. Interestingly, (as explained by Charles’ Law) if even this small area is added to the size of the glottic aperture while breathing, the patient will notice a significant improvement of exercise tolerance.

Surface scarring in the tracheotomy (6 of 6)

When there is a scar anywhere in the airway, the clinician must make sure there isn’t another causing narrowing. In this case there is no narrowing, but the tracheotomy site shows surface scarring at the arrow.

Supraglottic, Glottic, and Subglottic Endotracheal Tube Injury

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Breathing tube injury (1 of 4)

This 20-something individual was premature at birth and intubated for several weeks. Decades later, the evidence of breathing tube injury can be seen. Here, parallel lines outline likely trajectory of tube, taped at right corner of mouth. This fits as well with the left medial arytenoid divot at arrow. Dotted lines indicate aryepiglottic cord margins. Note deficit on right (left of photo) suggesting pressure necrosis from the endotracheal tube.

Aryepiglottic cord defect (2 of 4)

Aryepiglottic cord defect is better seen during phonation. The details of posterior commissure injury are obscured at this distance.

Phonation (3 of 4)

During phonation, low voice, note that the posterior vocal cords cannot come together, (even with cough or breath-holding) due to joint capsule injury from the endotracheal tube. Voice is intractably breathy.

Posterior subglottic thickening (4 of 4)

Posterior subglottic thickening surrounded by dotted lines, indicating a third level of old injury, here with no functional consequence.
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